The Last City I Loved

(I came across this piece while attending “Open Mic Night” at NYUAD. I was greatly moved by its eloquence and sincerity and by the strength and length of applause, so were others. I asked April Xiong, the author of this article, if I could feature it on my blog and she was kind enough to say yes. Thank you once again, April.)

Leaning on my luggage in front of a tower named Sama, I watched the sky turn dreamy with light – rising up infinitely behind the mosque and the hospital and the still-sleeping buildings, streaked with pink and wisps of pearly cloud. Deeply aware of my own breathing, I wanted to hold on to that moment, keep it forever in my memory: Abu Dhabi at magic hour, Abu Dhabi at its most secret, Abu Dhabi at its most beautiful. Abu Dhabi that I have known, Abu Dhabi that I will never know.

On the road to the airport that day, I peered through the car windows and gazed around at the city in its first half-stolen moments of waking. The sun, casting a golden mist over all that it touched, flashed through the window at times, sticking white dots in my vision that would disappear with each slow blink of a sleepy eye. The palm trees lining both sides of the long, straight road seemed, in that magical light, to be covered with a fine layer of pure golden dust…

The white minarets of the Grand Mosque rose at first as small, instantly recognisable shapes on the far horizon – but soon – too soon – we were passing them by. I stuck my face to the window, looking backwards, and watched until they were completely out of sight. I felt an unnamable loss, one that I often feel, going from city to city and from life to life, always trying to catch one last glimpse of something beautiful.

I remember the first time I experienced rain in Abu Dhabi, almost three years ago. We all rushed outside and held our faces up to the sky and spun around, laughing at ourselves, because it was really only a tiny drizzle, but still – it was something. The taste of raindrops on my outstretched tongue.

I remember lying on the Corniche with Bethany and Paige and Alyazia on a seemingly regular night, and the most beautiful fireworks I have ever seen started going off right above our heads, terrifyingly close, colossal explosions of color and light, sparks landing next to us on the sand.

I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Intercontinental with Adam after a free jazz show and roaming around exhilarated at being on top of everything and seeing the lights of the city laid out so clearly below us and feeling the wind on our faces and the thrill of being young and wild and free, and we danced on the rooftop helipad and launched our feet into the sky.

One late night/early morning, walking home after a long night spent in the editing lab at DTC, I caught a glimpse of a taxi driver, probably Pakistani, masturbating in the backseat of his taxicab. Face turned up, eyes closed – how secret this stolen moment, how dingy it seemed to me. As I hurried along, nervous, I wondered fleetingly if he had anywhere to go besides his taxicab. If he had a home. If he had a wife.

I often feel nervous in Abu Dhabi, like I am constantly being watched. Sometimes I walk around the city and notice, jarred, that I am the only woman in sight. Endless lines of men around me, staring and laughing, shouting things sometimes.

Another evening, while I was filming alone by the Corniche, an Egyptian man approached me and expressed interest in my camera. His English was very poor, so we ended up communicating in broken Arabic about the camera and my university and his job as a waiter. He wanted to get dinner, and I wanted to practice speaking Arabic, so I agreed. On the walk over, as we were cutting through an empty lot, he suddenly grabbed me with terrible intensity and slobbered on my neck for two sordid seconds. I shoved him away, and he apologized, and we resumed our walk again.

I was wary of him from then on, but still I felt pity for the desperate expression on his face, the raw need in his voice, the sadness and the loneliness laid utterly exposed. At the restaurant, he kept repeating over and over again, ufakir fiki, ufakir fiki, I’m thinking of you, I’m thinking of you, even as we were sitting there together eating shawarma. As I walked alone back to Sama, I thought of his lips on my neck, and felt repulsed, and then ashamed – who was I to judge him for his loneliness? I, too, have felt loneliness and need; I have merely been luckier in life than he has.

The story ends like this: I gave him my phone number, for a reason I can’t recall now. I ignored all his calls, feeling ashamed and disappointed in myself each time. Still, I never picked up – I was, and am, a coward. A few days later, I left for Buenos Aires, and I’ve never seen that man again.

There are single women in Abu Dhabi too – maids to Emirati families, workers in grocery stores, waitresses. Melba and Janna and Mary and Eva – beautiful, spirited, caring women whose stories of generosity and sacrifice have made me cry. All these people, and the stories they rarely have the opportunity to tell, make Abu Dhabi what it is today. They work so hard, but what do they get in return? Abu Dhabi is not kind to them. Abu Dhabi is not their home. Abu Dhabi takes them in and spits them out again like wastewater instead of human beings. When I think of this ugly part of a city I love, I feel sick and ashamed to love it.

But what right do I have to say anything? I sit in a place of rare privilege – I am a student at New York University Abu Dhabi, and I don’t pay for a single dirham of my education. I have been treated with unimaginable generosity by the government of the UAE, and I have been privileged to be invited here as an honored guest, with the potential to give back some of what I have been given.

I owe so much. But even if I live the rest of my life here, Abu Dhabi will never belong to me, and I will never belong to it – like so many other people living in this strange transitory city, I am just passing through.

I miss Abu Dhabi when I’m not here – but nostalgia is not the same as living. Still, Abu Dhabi has changed me, marked me, given me some part of itself – its whips of sand, its half-finished buildings, the call to prayer five times a day, its early morning skies and late night mysteries, all the things I love about it and all the things I hate about it. Although I don’t yet know where I’ll end up after graduation, if I’ll stay or if I’ll go, I do know what Abu Dhabi has given me – everything. I want to give back, someday, someway, even if I cannot find it in me to stay.

How? How? I trace the Arabic script for dream over and over again in the sultry air, I remember the taste of those first raindrops on my tongue, I dance on the Corniche against a yellow star wall, I wait for sunrise, I wait for the call to prayer, I wait, I wait, and – ufakir fiki, ufakir fiki.


April Xiong 


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